A church on the verge

This is St. Boniface Catholic Church, in the Pulaski Park neighborhood on the near west side, at Chestnut & Noble Streets.

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Closed since 1990, this imposing 1902 building made it onto 1999’s Landmarks Illinois Most Endangered list for the whole state.

It’s an absolutely wonderful church building, no two ways about it. The side elevation could pass for the main facade of a lesser church. In front, the main portal has a delightful array of patterned columns, each with a different design.

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Today, the venerable building is in a sorry state. Roof leaks have gone unchecked over the side aisles, developing into miniature roof collapses, and the interior is pretty well trashed. Efforts to secure the building by walling up the main entrance with concrete block have failed, as the wall stands broken down, the security fence pried apart, and the door’s portal windows shattered out.

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A small rectory building stands behind the church. Sadly, a school building to the east and two convent buildings have already been lost.

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Things might be looking up for St. Boniface. A web site devoted to the church reports that, after over ten years of the community fighting to save the building, a developer is moving forward with plans to renovate and redevelop the property.

Renderings of the proposed construction may be seen here. To put it mildly, it’s a pretty aggressive intervention. It essentially adds a 6-story building that wraps around 2 sides of the church, completely burying the building’s white-brick-clad eastern facade, (a side that was meant obscured by the other buildings previously on the site). The plan cuts lots of windows and skylights into the facade and roof. Some changes, such as the new round porthole windows on the lower towers, blend right in (they match the round windows on the tall tower), while others could use some refinement – I sure hope they aren’t actually going to destroy the tall arch-topped aisle windows behind the tall tower, only to replace them with stacks of punched openings. The roof skylights could likewise be visually unified somehow, tied together into a single element rather than a scattered patchwork of squares. And couldn’t the rose windows be saved?

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The new construction also replaces the rectory building. It’s not clear why the vacant land to the east isn’t used for this additional housing instead – perhaps it wasn’t part of the land deal; perhaps it was the only way to avoid having multiple buildings with multiple services. But the loss of the rectory is damaging to the complex as a whole, diminishing its integrity further. The building is nothing too special, but it’s definitely integrated with its parent structure.

Overall, the preservation purist in me cringes, but the realist side of me recognizes an economically viable renovation when I see it. If it’s this or total demolition, then bring on the construction crews.

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I tend to go back and forth on historicist churches. On the one hand, they’re wonderful, no doubt about it. They’re elaborate and ornate and embody thousands of years of tradition. On the other hand, I look around at all the flowering creativity of churches from the 1950s and 1960s, where every church could be something brand new under the sun, and start to have dismissive feelings about yet another French Gothic or Italian Renaissance styled church.

But then I find a place like this, a handsome, magnificent church that overwhelms in its splendor, and all those doubts go flying out the window. The preservation of a building like St. Boniface is a moral imperative.

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Read more on St. Boniface at Saint Boniface Info.com, a comprehensive site about the church. Be warned, your heart will break when you see the vintage photos of the interior before its abandonment.

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Northwestern University Chapel

The Alice S. Millar Chapel (Edward Gray Halstead, architect, for Jensen and Halstead) is a highly visible landmark in the north shore suburb of Evanston, standing at the point where Chicago Avenue splits off from Sheridan. Its front window of stained glass is illuminated from within, making the building a beacon as well as an architectural mountain.

Alice S. Millar Chapel, Northwestern U.

The building is unabashedly French Gothic on the outside, so it might come as a shock to find that it was completed in 1962, the very height of Chicago’s MidCentury modern boom.

Inside, one finds a spatially grand but comparatively unremarkable interior, most notable for its conflicting personality. There is no lavish Gothic ornament, no encrusted decoration, no mind-blowing accumulations of sculpture or articulation. Unwilling to admit its modern heritage, the building seems a bit ashamed of its historicist clothing, unwilling to go whole-hog with the neo-Neo-Gothic. Amid the carved wood pointed arches and curlie-cues can be found anomalous touches of Modernism, such as the strips of faceted stained glass in the lobby wall.

Alice S. Millar Chapel, Northwestern U.

Alice S. Millar Chapel, Northwestern U.

Millar Chapel, Northwestern University

One thing does make the chapel truly exceptional, however, and it’s staring you right in the face as you drive south on Sheridan Road. The stained glass windows are a masterpiece, and unlike any I’ve seen in Chicago.

Alice S. Millar Chapel, Northwestern U.

I am an unabashed fan of the MidCentury work that came out of St. Louis’s Emil Frei Studios. Their stable of artists created an interelated range of styles that took conventional Christian symbolism and broke it down, reinterpreted it, stirred it up, and let it explode onto window designs that are stunning portrayals of movement and feeling. By contrast, Chicago MidCentury stained glass is almost universally bold, bright, almost cartoonish, rarely abstract, and never subtle or ambiguous. I love it, make no mistake, but 1960s stained glass in Chicago is more likely to blow your mind through its enormity than its subtlety.

So it was a shock to walk into the Millar Chapel and discover that the brightly lit stained glass that motorists see on Sheridan was but a faint hint of what lay within (in fact, the front window’s artistry is actually obscured by the glaring lighting, which leaves parts of the window relatively dark and the rest unnaturally overlit. Adding injury to insult, the window is not visible at all from the inside of the chapel.)

Northwestern Chapel

Northwestern Chapel

This was not some weak historicist brew, nor was it the usual Technicolor style of Chicago Modernism. This was artistry on a level to rival the Frei Studio at their peak.

Alice S. Millar Chapel, Northwestern U.

Alice S. Millar Chapel, Northwestern U.

Within those traditional Gothic window frames seethes a cauldron of imagery and color, muted reds and greens and blues swirling and blending. Recognizable faces and bodies and shapes rise out of an abstract mix of shapes and lines. At the top of one window, a smiling sun watches over the cosmos. In another, the head of a cow floats in a bubble. An owl perches, an atom spins, the US Capitol Building looms, and human figures rise and fall to meet their unspecified fates. The meanings are obscure, eliciting thought and curiosity.

Alice S. Millar Chapel, Northwestern U.

Alice S. Millar Chapel, Northwestern U.

The crowning glory is the rear wall of the chapel, where one of the building’s rare Modernist conceits occurs. The entire rear wall is a window, top to bottom stained glass.

Alice S. Millar Chapel, Northwestern U.

Unsurprisingly, these windows were not the work of a Chicago artist, but of internationally renown designer Benoit Gilsoul, Belgian-born and operating out of New York City. The windows were fabricated and installed by Chicago’s Willett-Hauser Studios.

Alice S. Millar Chapel, Northwestern U.

On and around Drexel Boulevard

I’ve been neglecting the south side lately, so here’s some views from Drexel Boulevard.

Drexel is a grand urban parkway, divided by a huge strip of grass and trees, which starts just north of the University of Chicago. It looks like a major thoroughfare till you reach its northern end and find that it goes nowhere, petering out around 39th Street. On and around its short length, however, there’s a lot of magnificent architecture and interesting urban sights, remnants of its heyday as a home to some of the city’s wealthiest citizens.

French.  Definately French.
I have no idea what this chateau-like building was originally, or even what it is today.

Apartments, block after block
Before it becomes a full boulevard, Drexel is thick with apartment blocks.

Victorian row

Abandoned railroad embankment
This abandoned railroad embankment once crossed the area on a bridge, now long vanished.

Modernist tile mosaic
The orange windows are pretty awful, even by my Mid-Century Modern-loving standards, but the tile mosaic is lovely.

Drexel dies without warning into Oakwood Boulevard. Take a left and cruise west, and you’ll find a couple of striking churches:

Blackwell Memorial African Methodist Church

South side church

South side twin

Just a bit west and north of that, they’re tearing down huge numbers of old public housing buildings, including a lot of low-rise stuff that really ought to be reconditioned instead — but that’s a post for another day…